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Technology reshaping traditional law firms

Technology reshaping traditional law firms

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management Technology Young Persons 


Legal technology is upending the traditional pyramid model of law firms where a large cohort of junior lawyers supported senior associates and partners, a session on the impact of technology on the law at the LIV’s Conference of Council heard last week.

Electronic discovery, for instance, has taken over the task of analysing very large unstructured data sets which traditionally has been the role of junior lawyers, Clayton Utz senior associate Sean Kelly said, turning the old pyramid model into a diamond-shaped model where senior associates will make up the most populous middle.

“Technology has allowed very large discovery exercises involving a million documents or more that would in the past have involved a large team of junior lawyers working for 10 hours a day for three months,” Mr Kelly said.

Reducing that enormous task to a matter of days means law firms can now focus on merits of the dispute more cheaply and quickly, he said.

However the impact on junior lawyers is not just in reducing the volume of their work, but also in changing the nature of their work, he said. “This is powerful technology that is doing conceptual things, not just spellchecking.”

This means junior lawyers are potentially missing out on crucial training in the kinds of concepts they will need in future dealings with clients, he pointed out. “In five years time when they are senior associates and they're asked by the client ‘what is the normal clause in this circumstance?’ - how will they know, what experience will they have?”

Federal Court national director of court and tribunal services Louise Anderson said a similar phenomenon was being seen in the courts following the adoption of technology for transactional roles such as file movement and an increase in online dispute resolution. “There’s less of a junior entry point,” she said.

Mr Kelly said he was also concerned that the increasing reliance on legal technology could ossify lawyers’ understanding of legal concepts. “My understanding is that technology is largely based on a huge diverse set of past examples which are then used to predict likely outcomes in the future. There is an element of backwards looking in that, whereas legislation and the common law judgment or development are future looking.”

Swinburne Law School dean Professor Dan Hunter agreed that legal technology has inexorably changed what he described as “what was formerly known as the profession”.

“I now call it the legal services industry or market, rather than the profession – and you guys are just one of the players in the market.” The three forces of commodification, globalisation and casualisation that had been enabled through the internet meant that lawyers were no longer the sole providers of legal services, he said.

He said he too worried what the future of legal education looks like. But he said it was important for the profession to recognise and embrace the opportunities represented by legal technologies. “If you don’t do that, the sorts of providers that are sitting around you will grab the opportunity – they’ll grab a couple of the more forward-thinking of you and install them, as a titular figurehead.”

However, others said that even in an age of increasing legal technology the role of lawyers as trusted advisors would not change. Deloitte partner Deen Sanders said that the practice of professionals at its core has not fundamentally shifted.

“While the marketplace has unquestionably changed, the idea of the professional advocate as a human being with expertise that we can connect with has not changed,” he said. “The reality is that people need someone to listen to them and speak for them – the function of all professions is to be an advocate for someone who doesn’t have a voice.”

Law was not about documents, “but about what you do with the documents”, he said. “What I most value about legal graduates is their critical thinking.”

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